Friday, January 6, 2017

Hidden Figures: The female frontier

Hidden Figures (2016) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.6.17

A film that moves its audience to cheers and applause, as the screen fades to black, is an exhilarating experience for the patrons involved.

But a film that also prompts such a response several times during the course of its story?

When John Glenn (Glen Powell) arrives at the Langley Research Center, he makes a
point of greeting members of the West Area Computing team: from left, Dorothy Vaughan
(Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle
Monáe, partially obscured).
That’s a rare gift.

Director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures isn’t merely a crowd-pleasing slice of actual history; it’s also a sly social statement, and a rich showcase for its three starring actresses. Melfi and co-scripter Allison Schroeder have turned Margot Lee Shetterly’s absorbing nonfiction book into an engaging drama that charms and fascinates in equal measure.

More than anything else, though, I remain stunned by the fact that half a century has passed, before this jaw-droppingly amazing story has been brought to our attention. What the heck took so long?

The setting alone is an eyebrow-raiser that somehow missed being discussed in any of my history texts. Much of NASA’s initial efforts during the early days of the space race, playing catch-up after the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1 and several subsequent spacecraft, took place at Virginia’s Langley Research Center, then very much a part of the Jim Crow South.

The campus included a remote, fully segregated arm known as West Area Computing, staffed entirely by African American women — all mathematicians — somewhat dismissively dubbed “computers.” When a group in the larger, posher east end of the center needed numerical verification (basically arithmetic scut-work), a lead engineer — all of said engineers being white and male — would send for “a computer,” much the way a temp secretary would be requested.

Shetterly’s book profiles four such women: Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden. The latter has been omitted from this film; the other three have been brought to glorious life, respectively, by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.

(A quick bit of back-story not included in the script: The World War II-era recruitment of women allowed Vaughan, originally a mathematics teacher, to be hired in 1943 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA. Jackson and Johnson, also mathematicians, were hired in 1951 and ’53, respectively.)

Melfi begins his film in the late 1950s, on a typical workday that finds the three women car-pooling to Langley. A bit of engine trouble and a white cracker cop prompt some quick character sketches: Mary is impertinent and mildly scandalous; Katherine is demure and careful to soften Mary’s edges; the mechanically minded Dorothy is a sort of cranky “den mother” to the other two.

Once at work, Langley’s pecking order is established with similarly deft sequences. Marching orders for the various West Area employees are presented by East Area’s Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), a chill authoritarian whose interactions with Dorothy — the de facto head of West Area, who chafes at being denied an official supervisor’s title and salary — are polite but condescending.

Dunst plays this role well, her patronizing smile reflecting the ubiquitous — and perhaps even unconscious — bias and prejudice of the times. Indeed, during one choice exchange with Dorothy, late in the story, Vivian denies any racist tendencies. Spencer’s perfectly timed reply is to die for.

On this particular day, the Flight Research Division team headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) requires a “computer” skilled in analytic geometry. Katherine draws the assignment and finds herself in a room filled with silent, sullen and — in a few cases — openly contemptuous white men.

It’s perhaps a bit lazy, on the script’s part, that almost all of them remain nameless and faceless. The notable exception is lead engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons, recognized from TV’s The Big Bang Theory), who immediately takes offense at the notion that his work is to be checked by some “colored woman.”

It should be noted that although Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson are actual characters whose activities and achievements here are depicted accurately — including, most particularly, the corker of a climax involving Johnson and Friendship 7 astronaut John Glenn — Harrison, Stafford and Mitchell are fictitious. Stafford serves as cinematic shorthand to represent the various obstructive engineers who hindered Johnson, while Harrison is a composite of the color-blind colleagues who valued her work.

The two actors are an effective contrast. Parsons makes Stafford petulant and demeaning, refusing to share publishing credit even when Johnson does most (all?) of the computational work. He’s an arrogant little weenie who masks his sexism and racism by insisting, to deflect Johnson’s carefully worded protests, that “we simply don’t do things that way” (the inevitable last refuge of the fairness-impaired).

Costner, on the other hand, employs his “quiet good guy” shtick to excellent effect, his slow, silent takes making it quite clear that Harrison won’t let institutional bias interfere with obtaining the best possible results ... even if he’s occasionally slow to do the right thing. But he makes up for it with decisive action, on a couple of occasions. And if one of those acts is a shameless, undoubtedly contrived “movie moment,” it’s nonetheless a crowd-pleaser.

But these guys are supplemental to the primary story about Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson, which skillfully blends workplace drama with gentler moments that find them at home, often together, or with family members.

Jackson’s saucy exterior aside, she yearns to become an engineer, an unthinkable career for a black woman in Virginia; this dream gives Monáe’s performance a softer edge, particularly when Mary interacts with her husband, Levi (Aldis Hodge, perhaps remembered from TV’s Leverage). He’s emblematic of the African Americans who simmered under the slow, slow, slow progress of the Civil Rights movement, and he worries that his wife will be shattered by the inflexibility of “the system.”

Spencer gets all the best one-liners and arch slow takes; there’s no doubt that Dorothy is a hoot. But she, too, chafes beneath institutional restrictions; her various encounters with Mitchell reveal the delicacy of Spencer’s performance. We can anticipate, from Dorothy’s gaze, the many things that she’d like to say to her smug white superior ... but, in almost every case, such ill-advised thoughts yield to morose resignation. The shift is heartbreaking each time.

Until — and, in a saga filled with extraordinary details, this may be the most incredible — Spencer’s eyes light up when Dorothy sees opportunity, with the arrival of a massive first-gen mainframe from an upstart company named IBM.

Engaging as Spencer and Monáe are, Melfi most often focuses on Henson, and no surprise: Johnson makes the greatest impact within the all-important Flight Research Division. Indeed, Melfi cleverly makes her math prowess just as fascinating — even exciting — as director Denis Villeneuve did with arcane linguistics, in Arrival. Math professors and engineers will cheer this film for years, and it’ll certainly be a great recruitment tool for adolescent girls contemplating STEM careers.

Henson is an admirable model of unreserved dignity, even under occasionally undignified circumstances. She makes Johnson an honest-to-God superhero, albeit a modest one: cleverly winning points not through futile argument, but via an intellect that’s too impressive to ignore. Her quietly triumphant grins are to be cherished; we cheer her every success.

On the home front, Henson also displays warm chemistry during Katherine’s flirty encounters with Lt. Col. James A. Johnson (the ubiquitous Mahershala Ali), who would become her second husband. (Her first husband, referenced briefly in the script, died of an inoperable brain tumor in 1956.) Their courtship is period-sweet, eventually building to a touching dinner table climax that Melfi stages for maximum poignance.

Mention also must be made of Glen Powell, whose portrayal of astronaut John Glenn is appropriately dazzling, perceptive and intelligent.

Production designer Wynn Thomas conveys a strong sense of period authenticity, most of the action taking place at Langley, or within somebody’s home; outside excursions — to church, or a quick Main Street-ish setting — are brief.

Mostly, though, Melfi is to be congratulated for this always entertaining presentation of fact-based drama. Space fans have long recalled the results of the Mercury programs, and particularly the Friendship 7 mission, but this glimpse of back-story is astonishing for all the detail we didn’t know.

Melfi has remained rigorously faithful to a meticulously researched book that can be regarded as a black, female-centric response to Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and is every bit as triumphantly fascinating.

The right stuff, indeed.

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